Dictionary of idiomatic expressions


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Dictionary of idiomatic expressions

  1. 1. An Asperger Dictionary of Everyday Expressions
  2. 2. also by Ian Stuart-HamiltonThe Psychology of AgeingAn Introduction, 4th EditionISBN-13: 978 1 84310 426 1 ISBN-10: 1 84310 426 1of related interestAsperger’s SyndromeA Guide for Parents and ProfessionalsTony AttwoodForeword by Lorna WingISBN-13: 978 1 85302 577 8 ISBN-10: 1 85302 577 1The Complete Guide to Asperger’s SyndromeTony AttwoodISBN-13: 978 1 84310 495 7 ISBN-10: 1 84310 495 4Pretending to be NormalLiving with Asperger’s SyndromeLiane Holliday WilleyForeword by Tony AttwoodISBN-13: 978 1 85302 749 9 ISBN-10: 1 85302 749 9What Did You Say? What Do You Mean?An Illustrated Guide to Understanding MetaphorsJude WeltonIllustrated by Jane TelfordISBN-13: 978 1 84310 207 6 ISBN-10: 1 84310 207 2
  3. 3. An Asperger Dictionaryof Everyday Expressions Second Edition Ian Stuart-Hamilton Jessica Kingsley Publishers London and Philadelphia
  4. 4. First edition published in 2004 This edition published in 2007 by Jessica Kingsley Publishers 116 Pentonville Road London N1 9JB, UK and 400 Market Street, Suite 400 Philadelphia, PA 19106, USA www.jkp.com Copyright © Ian Stuart-Hamilton 2007 The right of Ian Stuart-Hamilton to be identified as author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any material form (includingphotocopying or storing it in any medium by electronic means and whether or not transiently or incidentally to some other use of this publication) without the written permission of the copyright owner except in accordance with the provisions of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 or under the terms of a licence issued by the Copyright Licensing Agency Ltd, 90 Tottenham Court Road, London, England W1T 4LP. Applications for the copyright owner’s written permission to reproduce any part of this publication should be addressed to the publisher.Warning: The doing of an unauthorised act in relation to a copyright work may result in both a civil claim for damages and criminal prosecution. Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication DataStuart-Hamilton, Ian. An Asperger dictionary of everyday expressions / Ian Stuart-Hamilton. -- 2nd ed. p. cm. ISBN-13: 978-1-84310-518-3 (pbk.) ISBN-10: 1-84310-518-7 (pbk.)1. Aspergers syndrome--Patients--Language--Dictionaries. 2. English language--Idioms--Dictionaries. I. Title. RC553.A88S865 2007 616.858832003--dc22 2006034311 British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library ISBN-13: 978 1 84310 518 3 ISBN-10: 1 84310 518 7 ISBN pdf eBook: 1 84642 578 6 Printed and bound in Great Britain by Athenaeum Press, Gateshead, Tyne and Wear
  5. 5. To Chirpy, Sunshine, Tikka, Heimat, Flip and Flap
  6. 6. IntroductionIt is well documented that people with Asperger’s syndrome and other autismspectrum disorders have difficulty interpreting everyday phrases that must beinterpreted symbolically rather than literally. For example, a little bird told me liter-ally implies that a bird assumed the powers of speech and gave information,whilst the symbolic meaning is of course rather different.1 However, it is worthnoting that everyone can have problems with dealing with phrases like this fromtime to time. In practical terms, the only difference between someone withAsperger’s syndrome and someone without it is the frequency with which thisoccurs. Dealing with this problem is itself difficult. The most obvious solution is tonot interpret any phrase literally. However, not only is it the most obvious, it isalso the most stupid. This would make unambiguous language impossible tounderstand. Advising people to use context to interpret the symbolic meaning ofsomething that is nonsensical if interpreted literally is likewise unworkable, evenfor someone with very high linguistic skills. Arguably the only practical solution is to use a dictionary such as this, whichgives definitions of at least the commoner everyday phrases. The phrases I havechosen for inclusion are ones that appear to be the most often used amongst UKEnglish speakers. There are a considerable number of common American Englishphrases, and some Australian phrases as well. Together, they cover the majority ofthe everyday phrases that are potentially confusing for English speakers in mostcountries. There are of course many other phrases that could have been included,but arguably this is a case of diminishing returns. In other words, it was either adictionary this size or a truly enormous one (at least four times the size) withmany of the phrases being very rare indeed. In making my selections, I chose notto include the following: 1. Contemporary slang, for the simple reason that most of it lasts a few months and then is replaced by other slang. 1 The meaning of a little bird told me and other phrases used in the Introduction are given in the dictionary. 7
  7. 7. 8 / AN ASPERGER DICTIONARY OF EVERYDAY EXPRESSIONS 2. A lot of classical and literary references, on the grounds that these cause everybody problems, and there is a large problem of where to stop. This is meant to be a dictionary of commonly used idiomatic phrases, not quotations. Where phrases that are in fact quotations (e.g. salt of the earth) are included, it is usually because they are such a part of everyday speech that most people are probably unaware that they are quotations. 3. Phrases that are largely historical and/or little used. 4. Specialist slang from occupations and professions, unless it is so common that it has entered everyday speech (e.g. pyramid selling). 5. Phrases which really are self-evident (e.g. ‘fast as a hare’ simply means fast). 6. Single ambiguous words (e.g. ‘gay’), for the simple reason that about half the words in an ordinary dictionary fall into this category, and this is intended to be a relatively portable book!Inevitably there will be phrases that have been missed from this dictionary thatshould have been included. This is the fate of every dictionary compiler inhistory. Future editions will attempt to amend wrongs, but please do not contactme with suggestions. This is not because I do not value readers’ comments (farfrom it), but unsolicited suggestions create a difficult problem of copyright. A detailed guide to using the dictionary is provided in the next section of thisbook. I have tried as far as possible to keep things simple and intuitive. Thus,phrases are usually listed as they are spoken, with key words from the phrase pro-viding references back to the phrase. In finishing this Introduction, I hope that this book is of use to people withAsperger’s syndrome, or of course anyone else who is puzzled by an apparentlynonsensical phrase.
  8. 8. A guide to using the dictionary(1) Absence of definite and indefinite articlesEntries are without definite and indefinite articles (‘the’, ‘an’, etc.). For example,‘the real McCoy’ is entered as real McCoy.(2) Phrases are usually listed as they are spokenEntries are as far as possible done as they would be spoken. For example, ‘aftertheir blood’ is entered as after their blood, not blood, after their. Where I have feltthere could be difficulties in finding the phrase by this method, I have includeddirections to it using other key words (e.g. walk on air is also referenced under air).(3) Key part of phrasesWhere there are several similar variants of the same phrase, I have usually simplyentered the key part of the phrase; for example, there are various phrases like ‘aman after my own heart’, ‘a boy after their own heart’, etc. The key part of thephrase is after their own heart, and this is the phrase that is provided by this dictio-nary.(4) Use of theirPhrases usually can be used to describe or apply to a variety of people. Forexample, the phrase ‘after their blood’ can be used in the forms ‘after his blood’,‘after our blood’, ‘after my blood’, ‘after their blood’, ‘after her blood’, ‘after itsblood’, ‘after one’s blood’ and ‘after your blood’. Rather than have entries foreach phrase, I have simply included one – namely, after their blood. In nearly allcases, I have used ‘their’ in preference to ‘one’, ‘his’, ‘her’, ‘its’, etc. This is because‘their’ is arguably the most ‘neutral’ form. However, when ‘their’ is used, ‘her’,‘his’, etc. can be substituted in. Where a phrase is given with something other than‘their’ (e.g. are you sitting comfortably?) then this is because the phrase is usually onlyheard in this form. 9
  9. 9. 10 / AN ASPERGER DICTIONARY OF EVERYDAY EXPRESSIONS(5) Politeness ratings‘Politeness’ refers to the extent to which a word is likely to offend. The more stars,the more it is likely to offend. The following is a rough guide:* Is unlikely to offend anyone in any situation.** May offend some people – be careful about using it.*** Will always offend or shock some people. Avoid if possible.The politeness ratings are deliberately cautious. They are not intended to judgeother people’s use of language, simply to provide guidance on what should beacceptable to the greatest number of people. Where an entry has more than one definition and there is just a single polite-ness rating, then the same ratings apply to all the definitions. For example: As good as (1) Of equivalent quality. (2) Almost (e.g. ‘as good as done’ means ‘it has almost been completed’).*In this case, definitions 1 and 2 of as good as have the same one star politenessrating. Where different definitions have different ratings, this is clearly indicated. In addition to the politeness rating, I have included additional notes on someentries. This is because there are unusual features concerning these phrases thatshould be noted. For example: All mouth (1) Talkative. (2) Promises or threatens a lot of things verbally, but never actually does anything.** or *** Note: this phrase is usually far more insulting when a person is told directly that they are ‘all mouth’ than when referring to someone who is not present at the time.(6) Means the same as entriesWhere a phrase in the dictionary is described as Means the same as, the phraseusually has the same politeness and formality ratings as the phrase it means thesame as. For example, consider the entry: Add fuel to the fire Means the same as fan the flames.The politeness rating for add fuel to the fire is the same as that for fan the flames.In some instances, a phrase may have a different politeness and formality ratingfrom the phrase it means the same as. In those instances, politeness ratings for thetwo phrases are given separately. This at first may appear complicated, but inpractice it is not! It also enables a reader to recognize similarities in phrases.
  10. 10. A GUIDE TO USING THE DICTIONARY / 11(7) Emotional strength of phrasesIt is sometimes difficult to judge how strongly a person feels about somethingfrom the way they speak. When I was planning this dictionary, I had hoped toinclude an ‘emotional content’ rating for each entry. The problem with it is that itjust isn’t feasible to do this. For example, suppose someone uses the phrase ‘getlost’ (meaning ‘go away’). At one extreme this could indicate a very serious loss oftemper, and at the other extreme it could be the mildest of rebukes. It depends onthe person saying it, the context in which they say it, and what their normal sortof language is. For example, a person who habitually swears may not be particu-larly angry when they swear, whereas someone who rarely swears might only doso when they are very angry. I have tried in the definitions to indicate when aphrase is likely to be an emotional one, but it is impossible to be more precise thanthis. The following guide may be of some use, but it should not be depended uponto be always accurate: (a) A person’s tone of voice can indicate a lot. If someone sounds angry, then chances are that they are indeed angry. (b) A phrase that implies violence (e.g. ‘I’ll kill you’) is almost always an expression of anger only, not intent to do real harm. (c) A person who usually doesn’t swear but starts swearing may well be angry. (d) Usually if someone is angry, they don’t just say phrases associated with anger, but also say why they are angry.(8) About the definitionsUsually I have only given the idiomatic versions of phrases, and not their literalones as well. This is to save space. However, note that a large number of thesephrases can be used in a literal sense as well. For example, if someone says that‘John is out to lunch’ it might mean the idiomatic sense that ‘John is insane’ or that‘John has gone out to get his lunchtime meal’.(9) Exaggeration in phrasesPlease note that in providing definitions of phrases I have tried to give their mostliteral meaning. However, the actual meaning implied can vary. For example, outto lunch in its idiomatic use literally means ‘insane’. However, the phrase will oftenbe used in a much milder form. Thus, ‘you’re out to lunch’ more usually means‘your behaviour is unusual’.
  11. 11. ACROSS THE BOARD / 13AA to Z Everything.* Accidentally on purpose Something done ‘accidentally on purpose’ is doneA word The phrase ‘a word’ (sometimes intentionally, but appears to be acciden- accompanied by a visual signal to ‘come tal.* here’) means that the speaker wishes to discuss something or provide informa- According to Hoyle In keeping with the tion.* rules and/or expectations. Hoyle was author of a standard reference book onAbove board Legal, usually with the card games, and the phrase spread from implication of being honest and trust- card players to the general public.* worthy. The phrase comes from card games – any manipulating of the cards Ace See ace in the hole, ace up their sleeve, hold under the table (i.e. below board) is likely all the aces, play the ace and within an ace. to be an indication of cheating. Thus, Ace in the hole A hidden advantage; the keeping the hands and cards on the table term comes from a variant of the card (i.e. above board) is more likely to game of poker, in which one card called indicate an honest player.* the ‘hole’ is hidden from the players’Above par Of good standard.* view until betting is completed. Since an ace is a high-scoring card, finding an aceAbove their weight If someone performs in the hole would be an advantage.* ‘above their weight’, then they are per- forming at a higher standard than was Ace up their sleeve A hidden advantage. predicted.* The term is derived from the concept of cheating at cards – keeping an extra aceAbsence of mind Failure to remember card hidden to be added into a player’s and/or pay attention.* hand of cards at an advantageousAC/DC Bisexual.* moment. The term ‘ace up my sleeve’ usually does not imply cheating,Academic interest Something of ‘aca- however.* demic interest’ is of limited usefulness and may be considered an inconsequen- Achilles heel A weakness in an otherwise tial detail.* strong system – it often refers more spe- cifically to a character defect in an other-Acceptable face of… The best example of wise resilient person. The term derives something that is generally seen as unat- from the ancient Greek legend of tractive. The phrase can thus imply that Achilles, who was immune to injury, save what is being discussed is not very for a tiny spot on his heel. Guess how pleasant, and only looks good when someone killed him…* compared to other members of the same category.* Acid test The definitive method of assess- ment (e.g. an ‘acid test’ of a new drivingAccident waiting to happen (1) A situa- safety system might be if more lives are tion or set of circumstances in which an saved). The phrase is derived from the accident is far more likely to happen (e.g. fact that gold is the only metal not to waxing a wooden floor so it is very dissolve in many types of acid. Thus, slippery and then putting a rug on it dipping a piece of metal of unknown might be said to be ‘an accident waiting origin into acid is an acid test of whether to happen’). (2) A derogatory term for a it is gold.* person who through carelessness or lack of intelligence is likely to be the cause of Across the board (1) Totally. (2) Applying accidents or other serious problems.* to all areas rather than just some.*
  12. 12. 14 / ACT Act See entries below and: balancing act, Add up Be coherent and believable. The catch in the act, class act, clean up their act, get phrase is usually heard in the negative their act together, hard act to follow and in on (e.g. ‘it doesn’t add up’).* the act. Admirable Crichton A person who is Act the can Means the same as act the fool. good at everything. Named after a char- acter of such attributes in a play by J.M. Act the fool Behave stupidly and/or play- Barrie.* fully.* Adrift See cast adrift. Act the goat Means the same as act the fool. Afraid of their own shadow Very Act together See get their act together. nervous or cowardly.* Act up To be awkward and/or refuse to After a fashion To some extent. The cooperate.* phrase is often used to describe some- Action See action stations, actions speak louder thing that is recognisable as what it is than words and piece of the action. supposed to be, but it is not done very well.* Action stations A command to be prepared to do something. The phrase is After all is said and done Means the same generally used jokingly when expected as when all is said and done. visitors are seen approaching (e.g. ‘action After doing it Be about to start to do stations! – Auntie Mabel is walking up something.* the drive’). The phrase was originally a command given in the navy just before After the fact After something has battle commenced.* happened. The phrase is often used to describe the events after a crime has Actions speak louder than words This occurred.* has two principal meanings. (1) It is more effective to do something than just talk After their blood Angry and seeking to about it. Thus, a person is more likely to have revenge and/or inflict punishment.* impress others with how skilful they are After their head Means the same as after at decorating by actually decorating a their blood. room rather than just talking about how, one day, they will decorate a room. (2) After their own heart Something that People will be judged by what they do pleases a person and is a good representa- rather than what they say. Thus, an tion of their own wishes or ideas; employer who claims to be egalitarian possessing similar attitudes.* but who never actually employs people from ethnic minorities is likely to be After their time Describes something or judged as being racially biased.* someone who worked or lived in a place after another person was there (e.g. ‘I Adam See don’t know from Adam. never met Jane Smith – she was after my time in the office; I’d left and gone to Add fuel to the fire Means the same as fan another job before she arrived’).* the flames. Against the grain Against normal desired Add fuel to the flames Means the same as practice or inclination (e.g. if a person fan the flames. says they are doing something but that ‘it Add insult to injury Make a bad situation goes against the grain’ it means that they worse.* would prefer to be doing it in a radically different manner).* * unlikely to offend; ** may offend; *** will always offend
  13. 13. ALL GAS AND GAITERS / 15Against the stream Means the same as are thus said to give themselves airs and against the grain. graces or put on airs and graces.*Against the tide Means the same as against Aladdin’s cave Any place that is full of the grain. riches can be described as ‘an Aladdin’s cave’. The phrase is a shortening of aAgainst the wind Means the same as slightly longer phrase (‘it’s like an Alad- against the grain. din’s cave’) that makes reference to theAgainst their religion Against their folk tale in which Aladdin found fabulous beliefs or principles (not necessarily reli- riches in a magically guarded cave.* gious). The phrase is sometimes used Alarm bells See set alarm bells ringing. jokingly to describe something that a person will not do because it would not Alcohol talking Express opinions that are be typical of their behaviour (e.g. a lazy probably the result of inebriation rather person who will not do strenuous work than an expression of something genu- because it is ‘against their religion’).* inely believed or accurate.*Agony aunt A woman who acts as a coun- Alienate their affections Persuade some- sellor or adviser in dealing with people’s one to lose affection for someone.* personal problems. The term originally Alive and kicking To be alive and healthy. referred to a person paid to run an advice The phrase is sometimes used to empha- service on personal problems in a news- size that someone presumed dead or ill is paper. Originally all such people were not (e.g. ‘I thought he’d died’ – ‘No, he’s women, but in recent times men have also very much alive and kicking’).* taken on the role, and are known as agony uncles.* All around Means the same as all round.Agony uncle See agony aunt. All bets are off The phrase means that the situation is unpredictable and it is impos-Agree to differ Agree to hold different sible to foresee what will happen next.* opinions on something and not argue about it.* All-clear An indication that everything is all right and that something dangerousAhead of its time Highly innovative. that was a threat is no longer a threat. The There is often an implication that it is so term comes from World War II, when an innovative that contemporaries have dif- ‘all-clear’ signal was given after a ficulty understanding its true worth, bombing raid was finished.* which will only be properly appreciated by later generations.* All done with mirrors Done by deception and/or illusion.*Ahead of the game More advanced and/or foreseeing further than others.* All ears Very attentive. Often used to describe an attentive listener (e.g. ‘he wasAir See air grievances, clear the air, hanging in all ears’).* the air, hot air, in the air, into thin air, out of thin air, up in the air and walk on air. All ends up Totally.*Air grievances To tell someone the com- All eyes Very attentive. Often used to plaints about them or the institution they describe someone who observes a lot (e.g. represent.* ‘she was all eyes’).*Airs and graces A set of very formal All fingers and thumbs Clumsy.* manners and behaviours indicative of someone who is very ‘upper class’. The All gas and gaiters Pompous.* term is usually reserved for people who All Greek to me Incomprehensible.* are pretending to be socially superior and
  14. 14. 16 / ALL GREEK TO ME All guns blazing See with all guns blazing. scattered all around, in a disorganized manner. (2) The phrase can also mean All hands The total personnel working in a ‘disorganized’ or ‘very bad, with little ship. The phrase is sometimes used to coordination’.* describe the total workforce in other areas of work.* All over the shop Means the same as all over the place. All he [or she] wrote See that’s all he [or she] wrote. All over the show Means the same as all over the place. All hell broke loose An exaggerated way of saying that there was a loud distur- All packaging Something that is superfi- bance. The phrase is a quotation from cially appealing but is in reality of poor Milton’s poem Paradise Lost.* quality.* All in a day’s work What can be expected All roads lead to Rome A proverb as part of the normal routine of a particu- expressing the belief that seemingly dif- lar occupation.* ferent events may have the same conclu- sion.* All in good time A phrase indicating that something will be done and that pester- All round (1) Fully comprehensive (e.g. ‘an ing about it is unnecessary.* all round good person’). (2) For everyone (e.g. ‘drinks all round’).* All mouth (1) Talkative. (2) Promises or threatens a lot of things verbally, but All singing, all dancing Used jokingly to never actually does anything.** or *** describe any piece of equipment or tech- Note: this phrase is usually far more nology that is the latest model and has insulting when a person is told directly that lots of extra features. The item in they are ‘all mouth’ than when referring to someone who is not present at the time. question does not necessarily have to sing and dance. The phrase is probably All mouth and no trousers Means the derived from the rather exaggerated same as all mouth (definition 2). The prose used to advertise new plays and phrase is often used to describe a boastful movies (‘All singing! All dancing! Cast of man.* or ** thousands!’ etc.).* Note: like all mouth, more insulting when told to a person directly than when talking All talk Means the same as all mouth.* or ** about someone not present at the time. Note: generally less offensive than all mouth; level of politeness depends on context. All of a dither In a confused and excitable state.* All that glistens The start of a proverb that ends ‘is not gold’. The phrase means that All of a doodah Means the same as all of a not everything that appears valuable is dither. actually valuable.* All of a piece with… Consistent with… * All that jazz And other similar things. The All over bar the shouting Almost phrase is often used in a dismissive sense finished and with a very predictable to mean that the similar things are outcome.* nonsense or of minor importance.* All over the lot Means the same as all over All the rage Very fashionable.* the place. All the right buttons Someone who All over the map Means the same as all presses or operates ‘all the right buttons’ over the place. is competent at what they are doing.* All over the place (1) In describing a All their geese are swans People who physical matter, ‘all over the place’ means believe that ‘all their geese are swans’ * unlikely to offend; ** may offend; *** will always offend
  15. 15. ANGRY YOUNG MAN / 17 have an unrealistically good opinion of Always the way A phrase indicating that people or things. The phrase can denote the outcome could have been predicted. either boasting or lack of critical facul- The phrase nearly always expresses a ties.* gloomy fatalism that no matter how hard someone has tried, a bad outcome wasAll there Mentally sane and unimpeded by inevitable because bad outcomes seem to any intellectual handicap. Not all there be the norm.* means the opposite (though it is usually used to imply intellectual handicap rather Amateur night Something done ineptly.* than illness).* Ambulance chasing Making financialAll things being equal If nothing alters. gain out of other people’s misery. The Used to describe a calculation in which it phrase often specifically refers to lawyers is assumed that certain factors will not making money from representing change, thus simplifying the calcula- accident victims in litigation cases.* tion.* Ancient history Something that may onceAll things to all people See be all things to have been scandalous or exciting but that all people. is now such old news that it no longer creates any excitement or interest.*All thumbs Means the same as all fingers and thumbs. And a happy birthday to you too A sar- castic response to someone who has justAll to the good Good. Often used in the shown a display of bad temper.* form ‘that’s all to the good, but’, meaning ‘what has been stated is good, but there And a merry Christmas to you too If are problems that have not been men- said sarcastically, the phrase can be used tioned’.* as a response to a person who has just shown a display of bad temper. TheAll up with All finished with.* phrase is intended as sarcastic, since aAlong about Approximately.* response such as ‘and a merry Christmas to you too’ would be a normal responseAlpha and omega (1) The most important to a pleasant greeting at Christmas time.* aspects of something. (2) The first and the last. The phrase comes from the first And co. And the rest. The phrase is usually (alpha) and last (omega) letters in the used after the name of one person – the Greek alphabet.* ‘and co.’ refers to the people usually asso- ciated with him or her (e.g. ‘John and co.Alright on the night As in ‘it’ll be alright were there’).* on the night’. The belief in theatrical workers that a bad final rehearsal will be And no mistake A phrase added on to the followed by a successful first proper per- end of a statement intended to emphasize formance in front of a paying public. the statement (e.g. ‘Hitler was a bad Thus, the belief that mishaps in rehears- person and no mistake’).* ing or preparing for any big event will Angels See on the side of the angels. not be repeated when the event itself is held.* Angry young man Phrase first used in the 1950s to indicate a young, usually ideal-Altogether See in the altogether. istic person who was dissatisfied with theAlways the bridesmaid Start of a longer existing social and political system. It phrase that finishes with ‘but never the does not mean that the person is neces- bride’. The phrase describes someone or sarily angry with everything.* something that is often the candidate Ankle biter A small child.* for something but ultimately is never chosen.*
  16. 16. 18 / ANKLE BITER Another bite at the cherry Means the rather than objects. The term is derived same as second bite at the cherry. from the fact that in the past ‘apple’ meant the pupil of the eye.* Another thing coming See got another thing coming. Apple pie bed A practical joke consisting of an arrangement of bed sheets that Ante See up the ante. makes a bed appear normal, but which Ants in the pants To have ‘ants in the are folded under the bed cover to prevent pants’ is to be restless and/or to fidget a a person lying at full length.* lot.* Apple pie order Everything is correct and Any day When following a statement of neat.* preference (e.g. ‘give me the old boss any Apple polisher A very sycophantic day’), a statement indicating that the person.* stated preference is very strongly believed.* Apple polishing Attempting to gain favour with a person in a position of Any day now Within a few days.* seniority.* Any minute now Soon.* Apple sauce Nonsense.* Any port in a storm The belief that in a Apples and oranges Means the same as crisis any source of relief and/or assis- apples and pears, definition 1. tance is to be welcomed.* Apples and pears (1) Describes an unfair Any time now Soon.* comparison because what are being con- Anyone’s guess Unknown.* sidered are too fundamentally different for the comparison to make sense. Thus, Anything goes No restraints or restric- comparing apples and pears is a foolish tions.* thing – they taste different and which Ape (1) Copy. (2) A state of irrational rage one tastes nicer is a matter of personal or insanity (e.g. ‘when he sees what opinion, not objective fact. (2) The you’ve done to his car he’ll go ape’).* phrase is also used as Cockney rhyming slang for ‘stairs’ (e.g. ‘up the apples and Apeshit Means the same as ape, definition pears to bed’).* 2, but not as polite.*** Apron strings See cut the apron strings and Apology for… A poor example of some- tied to the apron strings. thing (e.g. ‘the meal Peter prepared was an apology for home cooking’).* Are there any more at home like you? This is usually used as a chat-up line, and Appeal from Philip drunk to Philip indicates that the person asking the sober A request that someone reconsid- question likes the person they are ers an earlier decision. It is usually addressing. If the tone of voice is sarcas- implied that the earlier decision was tic, however, it can be a mild rebuke to capricious.* someone who is being a nuisance, Appeal to Caesar Make an appeal to the meaning in essence, ‘please tell me there most important person or highest avail- aren’t any more like you’.* able authority.* Are you sitting comfortably? This is typ- Apple See entries below and: bad apple and ically followed by the phrase ‘then I’ll upset the applecart. begin’. The phrase is used jokingly to mean that someone is about to tell a Apple of their eye In other words, their (usually lengthy or complex) piece favourite. It is usually used about people of information. The phrase comes from * unlikely to offend; ** may offend; *** will always offend
  17. 17. AS NEAR AS DAMN IT / 19 children’s TV and radio programmes most phrases containing ‘arse’ can substi- where someone about to tell a story often tute ass.*** begins with this phrase.* Arse about face Back to front.***Argue the toss Argue about a decision that Arse from their elbow See don’t know their has already been made.* arse from their elbow.Ark See out of the ark and went out with the ark. Arse licking Means the same as ass licking.Arm and a leg See cost an arm and a leg. Arse over tit To fall over. The phrase liter-Arm’s length The term is used to denote ally means ‘bottom over chest’, but the lack of friendliness rather than a literal phrase is used for anyone falling over physical distance. Thus, keep at arm’s length rather than almost turning upside down means to avoid being too friendly or whilst falling.*** communicative with someone (e.g. ‘Paul Art for art’s sake The belief that some- remained polite to David but kept him at thing can be done just because it is arm’s length, and never discussed pleasing, rather than for any practical personal matters with him’).* purpose.*Armchair critic A person who lacks any Art form See developed into an art form. practical or applied knowledge of a subject, but based on reading about it Arthur Daley A tradesperson of dubious they feel empowered to offer criticisms. moral character, likely to sell goods that The implication is that such a person are stolen and/or of much lower quality knows too little about the subject, and than advertised. The phrase is the name instead of criticising they should be of a fictional character in a British TV quiet. A prime example of an armchair series who was just such a tradesperson.* critic is a physically unfit person who feels they have the right to judge the per- Article of faith Something that is strongly formance of sportsmen and sports- believed and forms an important part of a women.* person’s general attitudes and behav- iour.*Armed to the teeth (1) To possess a large quantity of weapons. (2) To be very As easy as ABC Very easy.* well-prepared for presenting an argu- As easy as pie Means the same as as easy as ment. (3) To have a large quantity of ABC. equipment.* As every schoolchild knows Used toArmpits See up to the armpits. describe a piece of very basic informa-Army See you and whose army?. tion.*Army marches on its stomach Workers As far as it goes To its limits.* need to be properly fed if they are to As good as (1) Of equivalent quality. (2) function efficiently.* Almost (e.g. ‘as good as done’ means ‘itAround the clock Means the same as has almost been completed’).* round the clock. As much use as a chocolate fire screenArrow in the quiver A skill a person pos- Of no use.* sesses.* As much use as a chocolate teapot Of noArse The word means ‘bottom’. It is rarely use.* used in American English. The word is As near as damn it Slightly ruder version considered moderately rude. Note that of as near as makes no difference.**
  18. 18. 20 / AS NEAR AS MAKES NO DIFFERENCE As near as makes no difference Although Asleep at the wheel Inattentive to the job not exactly the same, it is close enough for that is supposed to be done.* all practical purposes.* Ass See ass licking, bet your…, bust their ass, As nice as pie Very pleasant.* chew their ass, don’t give a rat’s ass, drag ass, get their…into gear, haul ass, kick ass, kick their As sure as eggs is eggs In other words, ass, kiss ass, licking ass, pain in the ass, piece of with absolute certainty.* ass, put their ass in a sling, tear ass and whip As the actress said to the bishop The their ass. Note that most phrases contain- phrase is sometimes added after some- ing arse can subsitute ‘ass’ for ‘arse’. thing that could be construed as a double Ass licking Being obsequious to the point entendre. It either (1) indicates that the of stupidity – e.g. being helpful beyond use of the double entendre was deliber- any reasonable expectation, being far too ate and is highlighting it, or (2) indi- polite and conciliatory and/or agreeing cates that the person realised as soon as with everything a person more powerful they made the double entendre that they in status says and does, regardless of had made a potential error and are now whether it is correct. The phrase is most jokingly apologising for it. The tone and often used of someone behaving like this context should indicate which meaning in the hope of gaining promotion at is intended.* work.*** As the crow flies In a straight line.* Ass on the line Ruder version of head on the As you do A sarcastic comment on an line.*** extravagant claim or description (e.g. ‘we At a canter Easily done.* just had to have a three week holiday in Tibet this year’ leading to a reply of ‘as At a lick Rapidly.* you do’).* or ** Note: the phrase can be used as an insult as At a loose end Have nothing to do.* well as a humorous comment. As an insult, it is implying that someone is being At a low ebb In a poor condition. The pretentious or showing off. phrase is used quite commonly to mean ‘depressed’.* Ask for it (1) To be deserving of punish- ment. Thus someone who gets bitten by a At a pinch Describes something that will dog after taunting the poor creature for just about suffice for the task, but is not an hour or so might be said to have been an ideal choice. See in a pinch.* asking for it. (2) There is an offensive At a push Means the same as at a pinch. sexist use of the term that ‘justifies’ rape by saying that a woman ‘provocatively At a rate of knots Moving rapidly.* dressed’ is making a sexual display and At a stretch (1) Something that can be ‘must’ be ‘asking for it’ (i.e. wanting done ‘at a stretch’ can be done, but not sex).* (1) or *** (2) without greater effort than usual. (2) In a Ask for the moon Ask for something that single period of time.* is impossible to attain.* At death’s door Seriously ill, with a high Ask me another A joking reply to a probability of dying.* question, that means ‘I don’t know’.* At each other’s throats Constantly Asking for trouble Behaving in a manner attacking or criticising each other.* that greatly increases the probability of a At full cock With all strength and/or problem or an argument being created.* ability.* Asleep at the switch Means the same as asleep at the wheel. * unlikely to offend; ** may offend; *** will always offend
  19. 19. AYES HAVE IT / 21At half cock Inadequately prepared or At their fingertips Easily accessed.* inept.* At their wits’ end To have tried to dealAt hand What has to be done now (e.g. ‘the with a problem logically and calmly but task at hand’).* failed.*At heel Under close supervision or Atmosphere that could be cut with a control.* knife Describes the feeling of being in a tense or dangerous situation.*At loose ends Means the same as at a loose end. Auld lang syne See for auld lang syne.At sea To be confused and/or incapable of Avenue See every avenue explored. coping with a situation.* Away with the fairies Daydreaming orAt sixes and sevens To be in a state of con- absent-minded.* fusion.* Awkward age Adolescence; so calledAt the…face A description of being at because it as an age at which many people work within a particular profession (e.g. behave awkwardly, question the rele- ‘at the coalface’ means working as a vance of society, etc., but also are miner, ‘at the chalkface’ working as a awkward in performing adult tasks, such teacher, etc.) * as courtship, assuming more responsibil- ity and so forth.*At the bottom of it To be the original or most important cause (e.g. ‘although Awkward squad (1) A group of people several people were behind the rebellion, who require further training before they Jack was at the bottom of it’).* will be competent to perform the tasks they have been assigned to do. (2) PeopleAt the crossroads At a point of deciding who are predisposed to be uncoopera- between several options. The phrase gen- tive.* erally implies that these choices are important ones.* Axe See axe to grind and given the axe.At the double Quickly.* Axe to grind This generally means one of two things: (1) being obsessed with aAt the drop of a hat Describes a willing- particular cause or argument; or (2) ness to do something with very little having a secret reason for wanting some- encouragement.* thing as well as the reason givenAt the end of the day (1) Literally ‘at the publicly.* end of the day’ or ‘at the end of a work Ayes have it Meaning that the people who shift’. (2) What needs to be done after all support a proposed change are in the things have been considered (e.g. ‘at the majority, and thus the change will be end of the day the decision is yours’).* made. The phrase comes from a methodAt the last minute With very little time to of voting (used in, e.g., the UK Parlia- spare.* ment) in which people for a motion are called ‘ayes’ and those against are calledAt the touch of a button A phrase used to ‘noes’. Hence, the noes have it means that emphasize that an automated process or the majority are against change, and so machine is very easy to use (e.g. ‘you can things will stay as they are.* have hot water at the touch of a button’).*At their beam-ends To be desperate; the phrase nearly always means that the cause of the desperation is a shortage of resources.*
  20. 20. 22 / BABES IN THE WOOD B Babes in the wood People who are Back of an envelope See on the back of an innocent of what is going on around envelope. them. The phrase is often used of people Back of beyond Somewhere geographi- who become involved in something they cally distant; there is usually an implica- lack the experience to handle.* tion that the place is also culturally unso- Baby bathed See won’t get the baby bathed. phisticated.* Baby boomer Person born just after World Back of Bourke Australian slang: means War II. So called because there was a the same as back of beyond. dramatic increase in the birth rate (a ‘baby Back of the mind Something that is being boom’) in the late 1940s.* thought about, but is not currently being Baby out with the bath water See throw concentrated upon.* the baby out with the bath water. Back of their brain If a person says they Back burner See put on the back burner. have something ‘at the back of their brain’ then it means they feel they have a Back door An unofficial method. Also see faint memory of something that they in by the back door.* cannot quite recall.* Back down Allow something to happen or Back of their hand See like the back of their acknowledge an argument that had pre- hand. viously been opposed.* Back of their head Means the same as back Back in harness Doing a particular task of their brain. once more. The phrase is often used of someone returning to their job after a Back off (1) A warning to stop interfering vacation or illness.* and/or to physically move further away. (2) Retreat.* (2) or ** (1) Back in the swing of things Returned to Note: this is a phrase that if used in the normality after a period of absence or sense of definition 1 usually does indicate illness.* that a person means it, no matter what their normal language is like. Back into it See put their back into it. Back out Withdraw from involvement in Back is turned See when a person’s back is something.* turned. Back seat See entry below and: take a back Back number (1) An issue of a magazine or seat. newspaper that was issued before the current issue. (2) A person whose skills Back seat driver A person not in a position and/or knowledge are not up to date.* of power who attempts to control the actions of a person in a position of power Back of a cigarette packet Follows the by telling them what to do. The phrase same meaning as back of an envelope. refers to a passenger telling the driver Back of a fag packet Follows the same how he or she should be driving.* meaning as back of an envelope. ‘Fag Back story What has previously taken packet’ means cigarette packet in UK place. The phrase is often used for movie English.* sequels, where knowledge of the ‘back Back of a lorry See off the back of a lorry. story’ (i.e. what happened in the earlier movies) is necessary in order to under- stand fully the plot of the current movie.* * unlikely to offend; ** may offend; *** will always offend
  21. 21. BAKER’S DOZEN / 23Back the wrong horse Make an inappro- same way that a bad apple stored with priate choice. The phrase often refers to good apples will pass a rotting fungus to choosing to support the person who them and eventually destroy all the turns out to be the loser in a struggle for stored fruit).* power. * Bad blood Describes a state of hostilityBack to basics To reject complicated between two people or groups (e.g. ‘there methods or details and return to a simpler had been bad blood between the neigh- method.* bours since the argument over the new fence’).*Back to square one To go right back to the start. The origin of the phrase may Bad business See business. refer to games such as snakes and ladders, Bad form Something that is a breach of eti- where an unfortunate throw of the dice quette.* late in the game might result in landing on a snake and thus sending the player Bad hair day A day when everything back to the start (i.e. ‘square one’). seems to be going wrong.* Another explanation is that it refers to a system of describing the layout of a Bad-mouthing Saying unpleasant things football field, and a ball sent back to about something or someone.* square one was in essence the start of a Bad news A person is said to be ‘bad news’ new series of plays.* if they are likely to cause trouble or be aBack to the drawing board To go right hindrance.* back to the start. The phrase derives from Bad place See in a bad place. engineering designs that are so utterly wrong when put into practice that they Bad quarter of an hour A particularly have to be redesigned from the begin- unpleasant short period of time.* ning (i.e. the point at which the first plans Bad taste in the mouth An unpleasant are produced on a drawing board). See on feeling about an event or experience.* the drawing board.* Bad to the bone (1) Totally evil. (2)Back to the jungle To return to a more Lacking a sense of moral responsibility.* primitive way of living. Based on the argument that our ancestors originally Bag See bag of tricks, in the bag, mixed bag, not lived in jungles.* my bag and pack their bags.Back to the wall To be in a difficult situa- Bag and baggage Everything.* tion with little obvious chance of help.* Bag of tricks The term can either refer to aBack up Support. Also see get their back up. specialist collection of equipment (e.g. ‘the technician came along with her bagBackbone See put backbone into them. of tricks and soon mended the computer’)Backroom deal Secret negotiations.* or the specialist skills of a person.*Backs to the wall In a difficult situation.* Bail out (1) Abandon a failing enterprise (an analogy to bailing out of an aircraftBacon See bring home the bacon and save the about to crash). (2) Rescue someone bacon. and/or pay off their debts (an analogy toBad apple An unpleasant or immoral bailing a person out of jail).* person. The term can be used to indicate Bail up To physically corner someone.* that such people are inevitable (e.g. ‘there’s a bad apple in every bunch’). It Baker’s dozen Thirteen.* can also imply that such a person is likely to corrupt those around them (in the
  22. 22. 24 / BALANCED PERSONALITY Balanced personality Describes a person Ball is in their court In other words, the with no unusual behaviours. The phrase responsibility for doing something rests comes from the idea that some part with them. The phrase comes from tennis of personality can be imagined to be – the ball cannot be played by someone like weights put on a balance. If one until it is in their part of the court.* partof a personality is over-imposing, Ball of fire A lively person. The phrase is then it would be like a too-heavy often used sarcastically to mean someone weight that would not balance with the who is dull (e.g. ‘boy, he’s a ball of fire’ other weights available. See unbalanced said in a sarcastic tone means that the personality.* person is boring).* Balancing act (1) The process of trying to Ball of string See how long is a ball of string? do several tasks within the same space of time (e.g. ‘Jenny had a busy day – she had Ballistic See go ballistic. to do a tricky balancing act of taking the children to and from school, visiting the Balloon’s gone up Something important dentist’s, dealing with her correspon- has started. The phrase probably derives dence, and checking in with her office’). from the twentieth-century use of (2) Attempting to please several people, barrage balloons (large balloons teth- often with conflicting demands.* ered to wires) that were raised as a primi- tive (but effective) defence against an Ball See entries below and: behind the eight incoming air attack.* ball, crystal ball, crystal ball gazing, drop the ball, have a ball, have a lot on the ball, how Ballpark See ballpark figure, in the ballpark long is a ball of string?, keep balls in the air, and in the same ballpark. keep the ball rolling, keep their eye on the ball, Ballpark figure An estimate.* new ball game, on the ball, play ball, set the ball rolling, pick up the ball and run with it, Balls (1) Testicles. (2) An expression of take the ball and run with it and whole ball of disgust or denial (e.g. ‘that’s balls!’ or wax. ‘that’s a load of balls!’). (3) A synonym for courage (e.g. ‘you’ve got a lot of balls to Ball and chain A hindrance; something do something that brave’).*** that restricts movements or activities. The phrase is sometimes used jokingly to Balls-up A serious mistake.*** refer to a husband or wife.* Banana oil Nonsense.* Ball at their feet A person with the ‘ball at Banana republic (1) A country of minor their feet’ has the best chance they will economic importance (almost always in get of achieving what they want to do.* Central America) whose economic Ball-breaker A person who takes perverse fortunes depend on exporting a foodstuff pleasure in giving work to someone else (such as bananas). The term almost that is ball-breaking. To be called a always has an additional supposition that ‘ball-breaker’ is insulting and usually the country has a corrupt government, implies the person is very angry with you, police force, judiciary, etc., and is techno- but in describing someone else the term logically backward. (2) The phrase is (although very rude) may just indicate sometimes used to indicate a badly run that they demand high standards.*** company or office that is rife with cor- ruption and inefficiency. Both definitions Ball-breaking Something is said to be are insults.* ball-breaking if it is very troublesome, Note: For obvious reasons of politeness, the difficult and/or time-consuming. See phrase ‘banana republic’ should not be used when speaking or writing to a person from ball-breaker.*** a banana republic (either definition). * unlikely to offend; ** may offend; *** will always offend
  23. 23. BASE / 25Banana skin See slip on a banana skin. slightly damaged goods or goods that are no longer fashionable). (2) SomethingBand See when the band begins to play. that is cheap. There is usually an implica-Bandwagon See jump on the bandwagon. tion that it offers a very rudimentary per- formance when compared with moreBang for the buck Value for money.* expensive versions.*Bang goes… The term means ‘this is the Bargepole See wouldn’t touch them with a ruination of…’ (e.g. ‘When we heard bargepole. about the opening of the toxic waste recycling plant next to our home, all I Bark at the moon Waste time on a protest could think was “bang goes the neigh- that has no effect. Named after the phe- bourhood”’).* nomenon that dogs will sometimes bark at the moon in the night sky.*Bang heads together Tell a group of people off. The phrase is usually used to Bark is worse than their bite The actual describe telling off a group of people punishments a person makes are far less who have been arguing and squabbling severe than their threats of punishment between themselves.* would have one expect. The phrase bite is worse than their bark means the oppositeBang on Absolutely correct.* (i.e. their punishments are worse thanBang their head against a brick wall their threats would suggest).* Engage in a very frustrating task.* Barking up the wrong tree To haveBang to rights An admission that an accu- arrived at an inaccurate conclusion. The sation is correct (as in ‘you’ve got me phrase is derived from hunting – a dog bang to rights’). The phrase derives from following a scent trail that barked when it a slang expression by criminals caught had ‘found’ its target hiding in one tree committing a crime. These days it is gen- when it was in fact in another would of erally used more lightly to indicate that a course be barking up the wrong tree.* person is admitting to making a mild Barnstorming performance A display of error.* great skill. The term is sometimes usedBank See entry below and: break the bank, more negatively to describe something cry all the way to the bank and laugh all the not very subtle.* way to the bank. Barrack room lawyer A non-lawyer whoBank on it If a person feels that they can claims to know everything about a ‘bank on it’ then they feel certain that it person’s legal rights and entitlements and will happen.* by extension what is and is not permissi- ble. It is often implied that the personBaptism of fire A first experience of some- who is a troublemaker is anxious to thing that is far more difficult or provoke conflict over (often spurious) demanding than might be normally demands for ‘legitimate rights’.* expected.* Barrel See barrel of laughs, give both barrels, onBar none With no alternatives or excep- the barrel and over a barrel. tions (e.g. ‘she is the best bar none’).* Barrel of laughs Something very amusing.Bare bones The simplest possible form of The phrase is more often used sarcasti- something which works or makes sense; cally (e.g. ‘that funeral was a barrel of in other words, something with no extra- laughs’).* neous details.* Base See first base, off base, touch all the basesBargain basement (1) A store or part of a and touch base. store selling very cheap goods (typically
  24. 24. 26 / BASH Bash See have a bash. Baying for blood Demanding punish- ment or revenge.* Basket case In a poor state of health (typi- cally the term describes mental ill Be a devil An encouragement to do some- health).** thing not quite correct, but which will be enjoyable or rewarding (e.g. encouraging Bat See bat out of hell, go in to bat for them, not someone on a diet to have a cream cake, bat an eyelid, off their own bat, play with a saying ‘be a devil – one cake won’t harm straight bat and right off the bat. your diet’).* Bat out of hell Describes something Be all things to all people Be liked by moving very quickly (e.g. ‘it set off like a everyone. The phrase often implies that bat out of hell and was soon out of the reasons why some people express a sight’).* liking may be different from the reasons Baton See pass the baton and pick up the baton. why other people express a liking.* Bats in the belfry To be insane.* Be-all and end-all The most perfect form something can take. Hence, if something Batten down the hatches Prepare for a is not the be-all and end-all then it is not the difficult situation. The phrase refers to only thing that might be of use.* sealing hatches on a ship in preparation for stormy weather.* Be crook on Be angered by.* Battle lines are drawn The principal Be expecting Be pregnant.* causes of a conflict are established – i.e. Be in at the death Witness the end of an all the sides in a conflict know what they event (not necessarily a death).* will consider a successful conclusion.* Be in good company Hold the same Battle of the bulge The psychological and opinion as other, more exalted people physical effort involved in dieting and (this does not guarantee that the opinion exercise in an attempt to lose weight. The is correct, however).* phrase is a punning reference to the Battle of the Bulge, a key battle of World Be it on their head It is their responsibil- War II.* ity.* Battle of the giants A contest between Be laughing Be in a state of contentment two people or groups who are notably (e.g. ‘you’ll be laughing once the con- skilful.* tract’s accepted’).* Battle royal A vigorous (and often by Be my guest A phrase indicating permis- implication vicious) contest. The term sion to do something or to carry on doing probably derives from a particularly something. The phrase is usually used as barbaric version of cock fighting.* a reply to a question such as ‘do you mind if I do this?’* Battle stations A warning to prepare for imminent combat. The phrase is often Be real Means the same as get real. used jokingly when faced with a difficult Be seeing you Means the same as I’ll be situation (e.g. ‘battle stations, everyone – seeing you.* the boss is on her way and she’s in a bad mood’).* Be the death of … The cause of someone’s ruination or death. The phrase is nearly Bay See bay for the moon, baying for blood and always used in an exaggerated fashion to keep it at bay. indicate that someone is being amusing.* Bay for the moon Means the same as bark Be there for them Offer support and assis- at the moon. tance for someone.* * unlikely to offend; ** may offend; *** will always offend
  25. 25. BEAT THE SYSTEM / 27Be there or be square A now rather dated Beat about the bush Means the same as phrase meaning ‘unless you attend this going round the houses. event, you are very unfashionable’.* Beat around the bush Means the same asBeach bum A person who spends most of going round the houses. their time lazing on a beach rather than Beat at their own game Defeat a person at being constructively employed.* something they are skilled at doing.*Bead See take a bead on. Beat swords into ploughshares MoveBeam-ends See at their beam-ends. from being aggressive to being peace- ful.*Bean See bean counting, full of beans, how many beans make five?, not have a bean, not Beat that An expression indicating that it worth a hill of beans and spill the beans. will be hard to do better than something just done. Depending upon who says it,Bean counting Derogatory term for: (1) the expression can range from an expres- being concerned with the facts and sion of admiration (e.g. from a neutral figures of something rather than its emo- spectator) to one of defiance (e.g. if said tional consequences; (2) putting consid- by the person who did the deed to erations of profit and business before someone about to attempt the same moral or spiritual considerations; (3) action as in e.g. an athletics field event).* occupations that involve working with numbers, such as statistics or accoun- Beat the band Be better than everyone tancy.* else.*Bear See bear with a sore head, do bears crap in Beat the bejesus out Means the same as the woods? and loaded for bear. beat the daylights out.Bear fruit Be successful.* Beat the bushes Try hard to achieve some- thing.*Bear the brunt Endure the majority of something unpleasant, such as a punish- Beat the clock Work quickly.* ment.* Beat the daylights out Physically assaultBear with a sore head A person with a with great severity.** bad temper.* Beat the drum Actively and prominentlyBeat See entries below and: chest beating, if support a cause or person.* you can’t beat them join them, miss a beat, not Beat the living daylights out Means the miss a beat and off the beaten track. same as beat the daylights out.Beat a path Make a journey with great Beat the meat Masturbate.*** determination to reach the destination.* Beat the pants off Prove to be far betterBeat a path to their door Show great than another person (e.g. ‘Peter beat the interest in a person. The phrase is usually pants off Richard’).* used in the context of a group of people beating a path to someone’s door after Beat the rap Evade punishment.* the person has done something that makes him or her famous.* Beat the system (1) Find a method of doing something that is supposedly for-Beat a retreat Retreat or withdraw. The bidden by a set of rules and/or regula- phrase comes from the army, when at one tions. The phrase is more often heard in time the signal for troops to withdraw the form you can’t beat the system, that from the battlefield would be made by a argues that some regulations and institu- drum beat.* tions (particularly the legal system)
  26. 26. 28 / BEAT THEM HOLLOW cannot be defeated. (2) Find a method of Bedclothes See born the wrong side of the bed- defeating something elaborately struc- clothes. tured and seemingly impossible to Bedside manner A medical doctor’s or defeat.* surgeon’s skills at talking and listening to Beat them hollow Defeat decisively.* patients. The phrase usually is used in a more specific sense of how pleasant the Beat them to it Succeed in doing some- patient finds the experience (e.g. a doctor thing before another person.* good at diagnosing problems but who is Beat to a pulp Inflict severe damage.* rude to patients might be said to be ‘a good clinician with a bad bedside Beat to the punch Anticipate someone’s manner’). The phrase is sometimes used choice of action.* to describe the communication skills of Beat to the world Means the same as dead non-medical people.* to the world. Bee in their bonnet Having a preoccupa- Beaten at the post Be defeated at the last tion about something (generally, some- moment.* thing that is annoying rather than pleasant) – e.g. ‘Sally has a bee in her Beating the chest See chest beating. bonnet about getting rid of the greenfly Beautiful people People noted for their in the garden’.* good looks, wealth, and belonging to a Bee’s knees Joking term meaning ‘the fashionable part of society. The term is best’.* often used sarcastically either about people who obviously aren’t beautiful, Beef about Complain about.* fashionable or rich, or otherwise may be Beeline See make a beeline. used as a negative comment about people who are beautiful, rich and fashionable, Been around If a person has ‘been around’ but are otherwise unappealing.* then they are experienced.* Beaver away Work hard.* Been in the wars Appearing damaged.* Because it is there A reply given when Been there before Already have experi- questioned about the motivation to do ence of an identical or very similar item something which is impractical and/or or event.* dangerous. The speaker is basically indi- Been there, done that A jaded or con- cating that they want to do it simply temptuous dismissal of a proposal to do because it is a challenge. The phrase was something, because the person has first used by a mountaineer called George already done it.* Mallory, who was asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest. It is perhaps Beer and skittles See not all beer and skittles. worth noting that Mallory was killed Beer talking Means the same as alcohol trying to climb Mount Everest.* talking. Bed See bed of nails, bed of roses, curious Before the Flood A very long time ago.* bed-fellows, get into bed with them, get out of bed on the wrong side, in bed with, put it to bed Before their time (1) Describing some- and they’ve made their bed they’d better lie in it. thing that happened before a person was alive or before they were in a particular Bed of nails A disagreeable situation.* job (e.g. ‘Smith worked here before my Bed of roses An agreeable situation with time’). (2) Describing someone who has no problems.* ideas too advanced or modern for them to be accepted by their contemporaries * unlikely to offend; ** may offend; *** will always offend
  27. 27. BELOW THE SALT / 29 (e.g. ‘her ideas were before her time and it implied that this is done in order to harm was another 50 years before their worth the person.* was appreciated’).* Believe it or not The phrase indicates thatBefore they could say… Followed by a what follows, although sounding incred- word or phrase (a common one is ‘Jack ible, is in fact true (e.g. ‘believe it or not, Robinson’, but there are many others). people have gone to the Moon’).* Indicates that something happened very Believe you me A statement stressing the quickly.* or ** or *** Note: politeness rating depends on the truthfulness of what is being said (e.g. words used to finish the phrase. Most ‘believe you me, this is an important versions are innocuous. issue’).*Beg the question Make an argument Bell See bell the cat, bells and whistles, ring a without providing proof. Thus, a state- bell, ring their bell, saved by the bell and set ment which ‘begs the question’ raises a alarm bells ringing. logical point which needs an answer for the statement to make complete sense Bell the cat Undertake a dangerous job on (e.g. the phrase ‘I hate liver and onions behalf of a group.* and I ate a whole plate of it’ begs the Belle of the ball The most beautiful question ‘why eat so much of something person at a social gathering.* you hate?’).* Bells and whistles Describes extra facili-Beggar belief Be so incredible (in the strict ties that are provided with a piece of sense of the word, meaning ‘beyond cre- equipment or similar that generally are dence’) that it is extremely difficult to entertaining but provide no particularly believe it.* useful practical purpose.*Beggar on horseback A person who has Belly-up See go belly-up. acquired riches or power and has also become unpleasant.* Bellyful See have a bellyful.Begging See going begging. Below par Means the same as under par.Beginning of the end The start of a Below stairs (1) The area below street level process that leads to the end of some- in houses so equipped. (2) The servants in thing. The phrase is nearly always used to a (rich) household. This use of the phrase describe something seen as the harbinger comes from the fact that the servants typ- of something unpleasant.* ically did a lot of their work (e.g. cooking) in the below stairs area. (3) TheBehind closed doors In secret.* members of staff considered least impor-Behind the eight ball To be in a difficult tant by the management of a company (in position. The term comes from the game joking reference to definition 2).* of pool and refers to being in a position Below the belt Describes behaviour that is where it is very difficult to play a shot.* unfair, often with an implied sadisticBehind the scenes Secretly, or without intention (e.g. ‘asking her about her widespread knowledge.* recently deceased mother at the inter- view was below the belt’). The phraseBehind the times Lacking up-to-date comes from boxing – punches below the information.* belt (i.e. that could hurt the genitals) are not allowed. Contrast with under the belt.*Behind their back If something is done behind a person’s back, it is done without Below the salt Inferior social status.* them being aware of it. Usually it is
  28. 28. 30 / BELT AND BRACES Belt and braces Having extra safety Best bib and tucker The most formal, measures in place in case the primary set smartest clothes. The phrase does not of safety measures fail. In other words, imply baby clothes or overalls, but like wearing both a belt and braces (sus- instead refers to items of clothing that penders in US English) to prevent were once part of formal women’s wear.* trousers falling down.* Best foot forward Make the best possible Bend over backwards To do everything attempt at something. The phrase is possible. The phrase is usually used to probably an amendment of an earlier emphasize how hard the work has been phrase ‘best foot foremost’, which would (e.g. ‘I’ve bent over backwards doing this be appropriate advice in adopting, e.g., a project’).* fighting pose in facing an opponent in combat.* Bend the elbow Drink alcoholic bever- ages.* Best of a bad lot Someone or something that is not very good, but was better than Bend their ear Talk to someone. The what else was available.* phrase usually indicates that this talk goes on too long and is far from Best of both worlds If something is the relaxing.* ‘best of both worlds’ then it combines the benefits of more than one thing.* Bend their ear back Means the same as bend their ear. Best of British Short for ‘the best of British luck’, which means simply ‘good Bend with the wind (1) Alter opinions to luck’.* suit the prevailing mood. (2) Alter to adjust to changing conditions.* Best will in the world See with the best will in the world. Beneath them Describes something that is socially, intellectually and/or morally of Bet See all bets are off, bet your…, best bet, don’t such inferior status that it cannot be bet on it, good bet, hedge their bets, I bet and imagined that the person being discussed safe bet. would do it.* Bet your… Followed by the name of Benefit of the doubt See give them the something precious to the person. This benefit of the doubt. varies in politeness: e.g. ‘you bet your life’, ‘you bet your bottom dollar’ or ‘you Benjamin’s mess Means the same as bet your last cent’ (the latter two mean Benjamin’s portion. ‘bet everything you have’) are harmless. Benjamin’s portion The largest share. On the other hand, ‘you bet your ass’ is The phrase is from the Old Testament, in slightly ruder (the phrase refers to a part which Benjamin (Joseph’s brother) of the anatomy, not a donkey). The term receives a substantially larger proportion means ‘it’s absolutely certain’, the impli- of food servings than his brothers.* cation being that a person could wager something very precious to themselves Bent out of shape Irritated and bad- on the outcome because it is an absolute tempered.* certainty.* or ** or *** Berth See give them a wide berth. Note: politeness rating depends on the word or words used to finish the phrase. Beside themselves with anger To be very Better dead than red The slogan of angry.* right-wing members of NATO during Best bet The wisest option to choose (e.g. the Cold War that it would be better to ‘your best bet is to buy it now, because perish in a nuclear war than live under once the sale is over it will cost a lot communist rule imposed by a victorious more’.)* Warsaw Pact. This led to the riposte from * unlikely to offend; ** may offend; *** will always offend